I’ve learned not to doubt Tennessee center Cooper Mays. So when he told me that Dylan Sampson would be really, really good, I listened. Mays had a track record of talent evaluation that would make some coaches blush.
Mays made a similar player assessment when he said Darnell Wright was a special football player during preseason camp last season. At the time, no one thought much of Wright. Certainly, no one thought Wright, who was moving from left to right tackle last year, would become a first-round NFL draft pick. Yet, he did. Chalk up one for Coop.
Mays said Sampson was “special” last season, but took note of the running back’s improvement in spring practice this season. With two tailbacks ahead of him, I took note of the comment, but wondered what his role really would be. Well, that became obvious against Kentucky when he willed the Vols to one first down after another and, eventually, a win over the Wildcats. The slippery, powerful running reminded Mays of another former Vol running back, Alvin Kamara.
“Reminds you a lot of a guy that that we’ve had in the past and just their balance and just the way he’s able to bounce off people,” Mays said, referring to Kamara, who is the midst of a standout career with the New Orleans Saints. “And he’s not a big guy. Right? So I guess that might help him in the sense of being a little bit harder to take down, but just balance, his vision and just the way that he runs the ball, he runs so hard for for how big he is.
“I don’t know if people realize how well he breaks tackles, so maybe they don’t wrap him up. He’s a really good back and, man, continues to make the best of the opportunities that he’s given, regardless of how many times he goes out there, he just puts on a show and…we might win the (Kentucky) game, but it’d be a different story if he’s not out there on that drive making all those plays that he made to kind of put it away towards the end there.”
Yet there’s more than fancy running with Sampson. When asked about Sampson possibly not improving after a respectable freshman season in 2022, Mays said, “He’s a guy that I never really questioned in that department just because with his involvement on the Leadership Council and with this whole leadership role that he’s kind of developed really quickly within the offense. Hey, he might be a second-year guy and not really have as much experience as everybody else, but he steps up. He speaks his mind and he does what the program asks him to do.
“He does everything that that we’re asked to do and shows up on time and is trusted and works really hard. And yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s willing to go through whatever for the betterment of the team. And just for whenever he gets his opportunity, just make the best of it.”
In other words, Mays thinks Sampson will just keep getting better. You can believe him or not, but I’ve learned to trust Coop’s judgement.